LINCOLN — Even after blowout wins, levity is a distant friend to Bo Pelini, the Nebraska coach in pursuit of that elusive snow leopard in college football: consistent execution.
Thus a 42-24 win over Big Ten newcomer Rutgers on Saturday left him dour in a brisk press conference. Pelini saw slipshod execution. Penalties. Turnovers. Defensive mistakes on the basic bootleg play. I-back Ameer Abdullah was again everybody’s All-American, and his school-record 341 all-purpose yards served as a kind of critique for the many performances below that standard.
Only the recollection of one bizarre play drew Pelini to humor. That’d be when senior captain Josh Mitchell attempted to prolong the return of a blocked field goal with a one-handed fling of the ball as if he were throwing it back over the neighbor’s fence.
“I think he lost his mind,” Pelini said. “Which made me lose my mind.”
Pelini may not change his mind about his defensive front four after a Sunday film session — his instant take was “inconsistent” — but when the game was still in doubt and the Husker offense was its occasionally maddening self, the strength of the defense rose again.
It rose early, in fact, on the game’s first drive, when it stuffed the Scarlet Knights on a fourth-and-1.
“That definitely sets a tone right there,” said junior defensive tackle Kevin Williams, who started in front of a banged-up Vincent Valentine and finished with three tackles and a key quarterback hurry.
“Anytime you make a play like that, it tells the offense, ‘We’re tougher than you. We’re tougher than you, and we’re coming, and we’re not going to stop.’”
And aside from a first-quarter 71-yard touchdown pass from Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova to Leonte Carroo — the result of a Nova scramble and Nebraska dropping its designed zone coverage by error — NU’s D-line didn’t stop while the game was in doubt.
>> It pushed and mashed and harassed Nova, one of the Big Ten’s leading quarterbacks, into an 8-for-19 passing performance until sophomore defensive tackle Maliek Collins knocked him out of the game with a knee injury late in the first half.
>> Defensive end Randy Gregory blocked that field goal attempt that Mitchell tried to teleport to the end zone.
>> The line stuffed three Rutgers running backs — the players who had to have success for the Scarlet Knights to have a chance — for 95 yards on 31 carries. None of them had a gain longer than 8. Little nicks against a Nebraska defense that must be gashed are a kind of death to opposing offenses.
In front of 91,088 fans at Memorial Stadium, it was not the kind of foot-on-throat squeeze Pelini would have preferred — the kind he got in the second half at Northwestern — but it sufficed.
“Our front four controlled the run game in the first three quarters,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said.
“I was getting a bunch of free gaps because the offensive line is double-teaming the line,” said linebacker Zaire Anderson, who led both teams with 11 tackles.
“They are every bit as good as I thought they would be,” Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said. “They have disruptive people.”
The most boisterous on Saturday: Collins. He had seven tackles, a sack, three tackles for loss and three hurries, including the one that sent Nova limping to the sideline.
“He was playing his heart out,” Valentine said.
At 6-foot-2, 300 pounds, Collins is squat and powerful. A former wrestler, he’s nimble, and Papuchis said that background allows him to play with leverage and use his hands effectively.
Gregory, anointed by most NFL analysts as a sure-fire first-round pick in the 2015 draft, plays with raw speed. If he missed Nova early when the Rutgers quarterback scrambled free to hit Carroo on the first-quarter touchdown, he didn’t miss Chris Laviano later in the third quarter. Gregory’s burst off the line was so quick that the Rutgers offensive tackle hadn’t even gotten out of his stance before Gregory was by him. Laviano cowered for a 12-yard loss.
“You saw what he did,” Valentine said. “He was flying around today.”
“He’s an eraser for us,” Papuchis said. “Big playmaker. He can change the sticks.”
At the time of Gregory’s sack, Nebraska (7-1 overall and 3-1 in the Big Ten) led 35-10 with 2:34 left in the third quarter.
Cruise to the finish? Come now. Nebraska football is too seasoned at the bumpy ride to reliably produce a smooth second half two weeks in a row.
Quarterback Tommy Armstrong and center Mark Pelini had another snap mishap; Armstrong fumbled a snap that was recovered by defensive end Quanzell Lambert at the NU 21. The Scarlet Knights (5-3 and 1-3) scored a touchdown off that. They added a fourth-quarter score against mostly Husker backups for the final margin.
“What they got, we gave,” Papuchis said. “And I don’t mean to be disrespectful to Rutgers, but we really shouldn’t have given up much.”
The Huskers’ offense could have scored many more. Drew Brown missed a first-quarter field goal after a Nate Gerry interception set up the Huskers at the Rutgers 43. After Abdullah touchdowns of 53 and 48 yards — he rushed for 225 yards and three touchdowns on just 19 carries — offensive coordinator Tim Beck dialed up three passes in a row near midfield, which resulted in an Armstrong interception. The Huskers couldn’t execute a two-minute drill before halftime, were occasionally hampered by penalties and punted three times. NU once again started offensive linemen who didn’t appear as effective as their eventual backups.
Another sterling performance on third down — Nebraska converted eight of 13 — prolonged a few drives that otherwise would have stalled.
“We can’t take a breath in the second quarter,” Abdullah said. “We have to keep going and we have to keep executing at a high level, and we didn’t do that today.”
“We just got too comfortable,” Armstrong said. “We put our defense in some bad situations at times.”
They were mirrors of their head coach; they say it as well as he does now, and almost better. It is worth noting that Nebraska has won all but one of its games by double digits and five of them by at least 18 points. The Huskers are likely to be favored by at least that much over their next foe, Purdue. Not enough. In a Big Ten West ripe for the taking, Nebraska would prefer to hit its stride hard heading into a Nov. 15 game at Wisconsin, which is improving by the week after a 52-7 smashing of Maryland.
NU’s defensive line embraces that mindset. It’s already in the nasty mood.
“We’re always walking out there like, ‘Nobody can beat us, nobody can touch us,’?” Valentine said. “You have to be like that playing D-line, or you won’t play as good as you want to play. We walk it, talk it and all of those things. We want to be as good as we can and we know we’re not nearly as good as we could be.”
Said Williams: “Very confident, very confident. Shoot, we know we can play with anybody.”
|Yards per carry||3.8||7.1|
Nebraska is 4-0 all-time against Rutgers.
|Florida Atlantic||Aug. 30|
|McNeese State||Sept. 6|
|Fresno State||Sept. 13|
|Miami (FL)||Sept. 20|
|Michigan State||Oct. 4|
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